With the signing of Danielle Hunter, the Vikings have two key players scheduled to reach free agency next spring: Stefon Diggs and Anthony Barr.
Because Vikings capologist Rob Brzezinski did his undergraduate studies at Hogwarts, there is a chance the team could find a way to sign both. Today, let’s presume the Vikings have to prioritize. Which do you value more?
Offense or defense? Maximum effort or occasionally questionable effort? A No. 2 receiver with star potential or one of the league’s most versatile linebackers?
Barr is 26. He has played in 58 regular-season games over his four years. He has produced 10½ sacks, one interception, 20 passes defended, six forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. In his case, statistics don’t tell his story.
He’s capable of covering a tight end or back deep downfield, making tackles sideline to sideline and effectively rushing the passer. Whether you considered the hit dirty or clean, his ability to close ground on, and crush, Aaron Rodgers may have been the Vikings’ most pivotal play of 2017.
The only true negative attached to him is the perception that he doesn’t always play with maximum effort. This is not a media narrative. His coach, Mike Zimmer, has called this aspect of Barr’s career into question, and the front office has to be asking this:
If a young player doesn’t always play all out when trying to earn a big contract, how hard will he work once he is financially secure?
Diggs is 24. He has played in 40 games over three seasons. As with Barr, he is better judged with the eye than with traditional statistical benchmarks.
While he has never produced 1,000 receiving yards in a season, he is capable of making game-turning plays, and this was the case even before the Minneapolis Miracle against the Saints.
In the NFL Network’s ranking of the NFL’s top 100 players this offseason, Diggs ranks 65th, and Barr is not listed. I don’t take these lists very seriously, but this view reflects a 2018 season in which Diggs more often made spectacular plays than did Barr.
When it comes to teams assessing NFL value, though, often the key determinant is this:
How difficult would it be to replace the player, and how vital is the position he plays?
Diggs currently ranks as the Vikings’ second-best pass catcher, behind Adam Thielen. His presence gives the Vikings one of the best receiving corps in the league.
Without Diggs, defenses could more easily concentrate on Thielen, forcing the Vikings to throw the ball to players who are not nearly as dynamic.
Barr gives the Vikings superior athletes at all three levels of their defense, along with defensive ends Everson Griffen and Hunter, and defensive backs Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes.
Barr gives Zimmer a defensive chess piece — a player who can rush the quarterback, stuff the run and defend the pass depending on the play call.
NFL teams generally value anyone who can rush the quarterback over quality receivers, and few recent Super Bowl winners have been dependent on star receivers — although if the Falcons and the great Julio Jones had finished off the Patriots in Houston, that story line would have been altered.
Because of Zimmer’s emphasis on building a powerhouse defense, Diggs plays on the needier side of the ball. Losing Diggs might hurt the Vikings offense more than losing Barr would hurt the defense, but losing Barr might make the defense less of a cornerstone.
Me? I possess Super Bowl bias. I see teams winning big with random receivers like Torrey Smith and Danny Amendola, and I see superstar receivers like Antonio Brown, Jones and Odell Beckham Jr. playing for disappointing franchises.
Forced to choose, I’d take the defensive chess piece over the spectacular receiver.